I teach a workshop by this title, but also include the topic of learning through play in many other trainings. So often teachers tell me they provide time for children to play, but that “play” time is interrupted by teacher activities, small groups, or otherwise teacher directed choices.Teachers tell me they do this because the parents want it. They need to be more “academic,” whatever that means! Really, we’re talking about three and four-year-olds.

What most teachers mean when they say “academics” are school readiness skills. So let’s define readiness skills:

  • knowing how to get along with others
  • being able to work or play independently, with a partner, in small groups, and with the whole class
  • expressing your feelings in an appropriate way
  • understanding how to share and take turns (although this doesn’t mean that you are able to do this all the time)
  • listening to others
  • talking to others, communicating your ideas
  • following simple directions

Notice that “reading”, “counting”, “sorting”, etc. are not on the list. Why? Because at 5 years old, it is not developmentally appropriate to expect children to be masters of reading and math skills.  In preschool programs, if children are exposed to a variety of developmentally appropriate experiences in a print-rich environment, they will learn the pre-reading and pre-math skills necessary for success in school. They will, in fact, be ready.

So how do children develop these readiness skills? Through PLAY! When children have the TIME for open-ended, child-directed play that is joyful, and allows for children to make choices, the social skills needed for school readiness will develop.

When children play, they learn how to resolve conflicts. Who will go first? What rules will they play by? How will they share the materials? When children play, they learn self-control. How can we build a block tower without knocking it over? How can I paint at the easel without getting paint drips everywhere? I want to play in dramatic play, but there are already 4 friends. What will I do while I wait for a turn? When children play, they learn self-concept. I figured out how to put the puzzle together all by myself! I like how my friend rolled the clay to make a snake. I can do that too! When children play, they learn how to communicate their needs and share ideas. Interacting with other children in dramatic play, blocks, on the playground, at the sensory table encourages children to talk with each other. They describe what they see, hear, feel, or want to do. They act out stories they’ve read or social situations they’ve experienced.

When children play, they also learn:

  • How to be lawyers by practicing their negotiating skills. “I want to be the waitress today. You were the waitress yesterday!”
  • How to be architects by creating structures. “Let’s see how tall we can make this building.” “Do you think we can make ramps and bridges that stretch across the whole room?”
  • How to be scientists by making comparisons and engaging their natural curiosity. “I wonder what will happen if I roll the ball up the ramp?” “This leaf looks just the one we saw in the story.”
  • How to be composers by using a variety of materials to explore sound. “I can make music with this can filled with beans.” “When I tap this stick on different objects it makes different sounds.”
  • How to be artists and express themselves. “This painting is my blue mood.” “Look, when I dip the tissue paper in glue I can make a collage shape like Eric Carle.”
  • How to be authors and communicate their ideas. “I want to use the photos from our nature walk to make a book.” “I wrote a story about my dog. See my picture? There’s her fluffy fur.”

The list is endless. The best thing we can do for children is to give them time to make choices, let them play for long periods of uninterrupted time, and encourage their budding curiosity and explorations.

Sometimes, we just need to get out of the way!

The hard part for many teachers is giving up control. Sometimes we think that if we plan for everything, and we set up specific experiences and direct where and when children play, we’re teaching them more. If we don’t do that, then chaos will ensue. The truth is, and I learned this the hard way, the more we give control to the children to make choices, and the less we interfere with their play, the more relaxed the group is. There are fewer behavior challenges. There are fewer conflicts. Children are far more engaged when they make choices, and they are more likely to play for extended periods of time.

For many teachers, allowing for open-ended, child-selected play requires stepping out of their comfort zone. That’s really hard to do.  The key is setting up the environment so that there are many opportunities for children to use materials that are interesting and capture their attention. Try it for one afternoon’s play session. See what happens, and let me know!